27 February 2014

Library Limelights 51

Clive Leatherdale. Tiananmen Travels and Traumas, The virgin whore & other Chinese characters. UK: Desert Island Books, 1993.
Having met the author in November 2013, it was rewarding to find this book among his many publications and online company (Desert Island Books). Rewarding? ... as part of the research for upcoming travel in China. Leatherdale's experiences were twenty-five years ago around the time of the Tienanmen Square protests. Nonetheless, his personal observations of the Chinese character are told with good humour, amid daily trivia and a general wariness of foreigners. His position as an English teacher (and his own nature) involved a great deal of social interaction among a more conservative generation than today's. Acknowledging his own cultural learning curve, he writes with literate flair.

Choosing a few sentences or so seems to be the best way to illustrate subjects of potential relevance for a traveller in 2014, bearing in mind the country's passage to great economic strides and less traditional xenophobia.

● American tourists tip insistently in a culture where the custom was previously unknown and is still officially frowned upon. (34)
● Chinese kids pee on the spot, a facility encouraged by their crotchless pants. ... On bus or train, crotchlessness exhibits the sex of every infant, and I visualized teams of 'population inspectors' travelling incognito armed with clipboards and pencils. (56)
● Chinese telephones are curious instruments. They are old-fashioned, bulky, and so distorting of the human voice that loved ones are mistaken for strangers. ... operational quirks take no account of Chinese users, habituated to bawling in the effort to be heard above a billion compatriots. (80-81)
● The newcomer learns quickly to avoid walking on the edge of the pavement. Mucus-lobbing bus passengers are apt to assume no sensible pedestrian is strolling nearby. (85)
● Students would spit in class as inconspicuously as possible. They would lower their heads behind their desks, spread their feet and deposit between them a small stalagmite. (86)
● Zhang had trouble with his consonants, which flowed into one another like a motorway pile-up. (36)

The theatre audience: The behaviour of Chinese audiences amuses, offends, embarrasses, or outrages, depending on prior expectations. ... All around, tongues wagged and babies cried; bags of orange peel were opened and scrunched; gob was ground noisily underfoot; wooden chairs banged to the demands of latecomers, early leavers, and toilet seekers, whose silhouettes fleetingly eclipsed the stage. (84)

Shanghai in the rain: The city's cyclists were shrouded under hooded capes. These are bum length at the back, longer at the front so as to drape over the handlebars and be clothes-pegged to the basket. The cape formed a kind of tent, everything dry except the feet. (86)

Roadside (rural) toilets: These conveniences were invariably red brick, semi-detached and roofless, with the ideograms for Man and Woman clearly marked at each side. The Ladies, I was told, often consisted of a metal bar suspended across a hole at bum height, against which users were required to lean amid the swarming insects. (92)

Bus travel: It is impossible to travel in China without someone puking in your presence. Jiang, for example, switched seats to be next to the window, preferring like most vomiters the front of the bus. Whether the visual terrors of front-travel promote sickness, or the afflicted naturally gravitate to the fore, I could not say. Travel sickness was so common ... (116 & 181)

Hong Kong to Canton train: Once the train was in motion, [the attendant] removed the door handles (replacing and unlocking them at each station), patrolled her carriage with a huge kettle with which to fill plastic tea cups, and as we neared our destination ordered feet to be raised as with enormous mop she swept the floor. Toilets were kept clean by leaving them locked, though she would grudgingly unlock them for a foreigner. Chinese passengers knew better even than to ask. (132)

And what of "the virgin whore," you may ask. Leatherdale had a conversation with student Eve about her boyfriend; he happened to be her second boyfriend. She explains the critical situation:
"Because Nigel is my second boyfriend many people feel I should marry him," Eve continued.
"Why is a second boyfriend important?"
"Because in China we only go out with someone if we think we might marry him. If I fail to make a husband of my first boyfriend, it is expected that I succeed with the second. ... Priscilla Wong has had at least six boyfriends. "
Bully for her, I thought.
"All the students think of her as a prostitute."
"A prostitute?" Somehow the idea of bedding for money on campus did not convince.
"Do you mean she earns money from sex?"
"Oh, no. She does not take money."
"Then I don't understand. Do you mean she sleeps with all these boyfriends?"
"No!" Eve looked shocked by the suggestion. She leaned forward eagerly. "It is because she has many boyfriends, but does not want to marry any, that people think of her as a prostitute. She does not make sex with anyone. I know she is a virgin."
A virgin whore. Perhaps the contradiction could only exist in China. I grew rather fond of the idea, for it somehow seemed a perfect caricature of China as a whole — rich history coexisting with drab modernity, nous with naïveté, corruption with innocence, membership of the nuclear club while burdened with poverty. (227-8)

Leatherdale's humour notwithstanding, many outmoded conveniences will be naturally improved now. As I prepare to depart, it's not without irony that I notice how many things go into my suitcase marked "Made in China."

Alaa Al Aswany. The Yacoubian Building. The American University in Cairo Press, 2004.
In my occasional quest for Arab literature: this novel became an almost instant bestseller. A popular writer, Aswany once had his dental office in the notable, real-life Yacoubian building in the heart of old Cairo. He intertwines stories of fictional residents, young and old, as a tapestry of modern Egypt — a turmoil of emotions, plans, contracts, betrayals, joy, grief, and even an aspiring revolutionary. With so many characters to follow, and sudden story switches, it took me some time to remember who was whom. I am amazed at what seems abundant usage of alcohol and drugs; in some ways, Cairo life seems little different from our own society. There is no real climax; we know life will continue beyond its existence on the printed page. Definitely recommended as an introduction to a different world.

At a desert training camp:
For two days the women had exhausted themselves getting the bride ready and putting together her trousseau. After a quarter of an hour of ululations and congratulations, Sheikh Bilal sat down to perform the marriage ceremony. Radwa deputized Brother Hamza ... to conclude the marriage contract and other brothers volunteered themselves as witnesses. Sheikh Bilal made the normal short speech about marriage in God's Law, then placed Taha's hand in Hamza's and pronounced the words of the contract, which they repeated after him. When they had finished, Sheikh Bilal murmured "O God, make their union blessed, guide them in obedience to You, and provide them with righteous offspring!" Then he placed his hand on Taha's head, saying, "God bless you and your marriage and join you and your wife in good fortune!"(203)

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